Night Terrors in Children: Causes and Prevention

Night terrors are very dramatic awakenings that happen during deep sleep. They can be very distressing to watch as the child may seem extremely disturbed and upset. Night terrors are harmless and each episode will end on its own. They do not have any long-term effects on the child, and most children will outgrow them.

When do night terrors occur?

Night terrors typically occur in children between 4 and 12 years of age. They usually happen about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep and last from 10 to 30 minutes.

What does a night terror look like?

During a night terror, the child awakens abruptly from sleep with a loud scream, is agitated, and has a flushed face with fast breathing and a fast heart rate. The child may be very sweaty and have their eyes open with a glassy stare. They might not recognize anyone and may be very hard to console. The child usually does not remember the episode in the morning.

What causes night terrors?

Some children may inherit a tendency for night terrors. They are not usually associated with serious emotional or psychological problems. Overtiredness and lack of sleep can be a trigger. Stress, too much caffeine, use of certain medications, and sleep apnea might also play a role.

What should I do if my child has a night terror?

There is no treatment for night terrors. The best way to handle one is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child does not get hurt if thrashing around. During an episode, turn the lights on and talk to the child calmly and repetitively. Do not try to wake them. Children usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes. Explain to babysitters and overnight caretakers what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.

How can I prevent them?

You can prevent night terrors by helping your child avoid getting excessively tired. Have a relaxing bedtime routine and make sure that your child gets enough rest. If they have a night terror around the same time every night, you can try waking them up about 15–30 minutes before the episode to see if that helps prevent it.

Please talk to your pediatrician if night terrors are interrupting your child’s sleep on a regular basis, if the child does something dangerous during an episode, or if you have other questions or concerns about night terrors. 

Categories: Sleep
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